It was a chance trip to Damascus, Syria in the late 1970s that led then-college student Howard Kaplan to his first stab at literary fame.
Now that 1977 book, “The Damascus Cover,” a period piece covering Syria and Israel, is in post-production as a spy thriller film starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, John Hurt, Olivia Thirby, Navid Negahban and Israeli actors Aki Avni, Tsahi Halevi, Igal Naor and a few others.
“It did well for a first book,” said Kaplan, now 66, during a recent visit in Israel. “It was successful as a spy novel because it has a good plot twist at the end. But I’d kind of given up on a movie adaptation.”
It was director Daniel Berk who pulled the 1977 thriller off the shelf of a Tel Aviv friend’s home library, and then emailed Kaplan, asking for the rights to develop the book as a screenplay. That was eleven years ago.
“He said, ‘I want to do it,'” said Kaplan. “I didn’t think much of it, it’s an old book. I didn’t even tell anybody.”
Berk emailed Kaplan each year for the next eight years, asking for permission to renew the option, until he finally raised enough funding in 2014, said Kaplan.
In Kaplan’s novel, washed-up Israeli spy Ari Ben Sion takes on the mission of heading to Syria to save the children of a Jewish family, while posing as an ex-Nazi officer. His handlers at the Mossad have other plans for him that become clear during his time in Damascus, and it’s those twists and turns that made the novel popular, said Kaplan.
When director Berk wrote the screenplay for the film, he changed the focus slightly, using a veteran spy (Rhys Meyers) who is sent undercover in Syria to smuggle a chemical weapons scientist and his family out of Damascus. Within days of the spy’s arrival, his routine mission unravels to reveal a string of murderous conspirators and Rhys Meyers must race to survive.
The $5 million movie, which was filmed in Israel and Morocco — “it’s cheaper there,” said Kaplan — had several cast changes before last winter’s seven-week filming got underway.
The first set of cast members included actors James D’arcy and Abigail Spencer, but changes in D’arcy’s own career ended up forcing him to leave the film. Berk also opted for several European Union actors, who are often less expensive to hire than American actors for tax reasons.
“It’s all about how much you save,” said Kaplan. “The more money you raise, the more you can pay.”
The casting agent was given a list of eleven European Union actors who were available to start working in three weeks time for the seven-week shoot, and out of the eleven actors, Rhys Meyers was the only name the agent recognized, “so she chose him,” said Kaplan.
In October, Rhys Meyers sliced a tendon in his hand, and filming was delayed again until February. By that point, Spencer took another offer, and they replaced her with Olivia Thirlby (“Juno, “Dredd”), who, said Kaplan, played the role a little “sexier.” Rhys-Meyers, he said, “really inhabited the film.”
Hurt, who has a home in Morocco, offered them five days of filming, from a Sunday through Friday, so he could make the 5 p.m. train in order to spend the weekend in his home. Avni showed up several times, as he lived “nearby” in Israel, and could easily hop over whenever he was needed for filming.
Rhys Meyers, or “Johnny,” as Kaplan said he likes to be called, once lived in Morocco as well, and was more available to spend time with the crew, said Kaplan, who shared dinner with him at the end of filming.
The film, which depicts Syria at a far different period than the current civil war, is now set in 1989, following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Times have changed since he wrote the book in the 1970s, said Kaplan.
“I like to say what the director says, which is, ‘I retained the spine and muscle of the story,'” said Kaplan who spent about ten days in Morocco during filming. “My novel is about smuggling children out of Damascus; there were 5,000 Jews in Damascus at the time. The chemical engineer in the film still lives in the ghetto. What I found was that the scenes in the movie that were identical to the novel were hard for me to watch. The ones that were different, I didn’t care about at all and I didn’t feel any responsibility for them.”
It was 1971 when Kaplan, a Los Angeles native, was spending his junior year of college studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. A “crackpot” friend convinced Kaplan to join him on travels in the Middle East, and the two traded their Israeli-stamped passport for a clean version in Cyprus, and from there flew to Beirut, and then traveled by taxi to Damascus.
They had several adventures during their time there, including suspicions that they were being followed, which sent them right back to Beirut.
After Kaplan graduated Berkley with a degree in Middle East history, he did “a vast amount of research” for the book, and it’s often praised for its details about Damascus, a city that no longer looks like it once did.
“The book’s sort of an artifact because those things don’t exist anymore,” said Kaplan. “They were all prior to this civil war.”
The book was picked up by Dutton, and translated into seven languages including Hebrew. It did well for a first novel, said Kaplan, who bought a small house with his earnings and then kept on writing, but his next two books didn’t find the same success.
Now, with the latent success of “Damascus,” he’s turning over a few new ideas, including another Middle Eastern novel.
“My career didn’t have the trajectory that it started with,” said Kaplan, who has republished two of his earlier novels. He believes the success of “The Damascus Cover” was due to its significance as a spy novel, not as a story about the Middle East.
Now visiting Israel again, he’s looking into another idea that involves the Jewish state, but he’s not giving away any hints.
“I think John le Carré used to do this,” mused Kaplan. “He just used to knock around and talk to people. I already have an outline of a story that’s come since I’ve been here.”